Grubby banter, sexless flirting and the smell of pizza and ambition … writer Sarah Morgan reveals the funny business that goes on behind the scenes of your favourite shows
In the recent movie Late Night, Mindy Kaling plays a naive young comedy writer joining the writing team on a late-night US chat show. The staff are exclusively white, male, expensively educated and surly a running gag is that every one uses the womens restroom to defecate because no women work in the office. Kaling, as a perky diversity hire, shakes up the show and drags it into the 21st century. Its a wish fulfilment comedy: what would actually happen, with just one woman or person of colour in the room, is that the lads would carry on being sexist and racist but would then swivel their heads at her like ventriloquist dummies to check that she was cool with it.
US writers rooms have a feral romance to them, as seen in shows such as 30 Rock, which was inspired by Tina Feys real time as head writer on Saturday Night Live, when her male peers would pee into jars on their office window sill and call it sun tea. In the UK, were a little more embarrassed at the idea that comedy is written, and feel it should be hidden away, shamefully and quietly. (When a writing partner and I asked for an office at the BBC in which to write our radio series, we were grudgingly offered The Jill Dando room, an 8ft sq office in TV Centre featuring a King-Kong-at-the-window-scale mural of the tragically murdered TV personality. We laughed. Writers are horrible.)
Recently, ITV announced an initiative to aim for gender-balanced writing teams on its comedy shows, which came as a shock to some people who claim to passionately love comedy but dont know how it is made. People who think Morecambe and Wise came up with all their own material, and Angela Rippon just started doing all that mad stuff with her legs on the day. You know what though? Its sort of OK comedy writers feel deep down we are doing our job properly when you dont know were there, like God. No, not like God: we dont have that level of self-esteem. Were like people who pump out the toilets at music festivals. Thats it. Gag writers are like the portable loo people, quietly keeping your entertainment entertaining. We know that no one at home cares if Simon Cowell is being genuinely spontaneous, or if his quip about David Walliamss trousers was crafted by a sweaty nerd on a 600th of his salary. Were just happy to be in showbiz.
I love my job. Ive worked in more than 50 writers rooms, not including the shows I helped develop that never made it to air. Some days I pinch myself that Im being paid to laugh my head off. On Horrible Histories you get free lectures from historians its like being paid for school, only youre actively encouraged to make fun of the lesson afterwards. Some shows Ive proudly worked on for decades, some were just a fleeting engagement in a production company office that smelled of pizza and ambition. Food is vital to the workings of a writers room. If a producer offers to buy lunch, everyone will immediately order the most expensive thing possible, because comedy writers are tiny children, and also because you know a free lunch means you are working through lunch.
The job has changed a lot in 10 years, but some writers rooms do still feel loud and gladiatorial, as in Late Night. Often in the UK they are dominated by male Oxbridge-educated caucazoids (some of my best friends are male Oxbridge-educated caucazoids, etc, etc). Writers are generally sensitive and insecure. If you put us together in a room we will overcompensate like the advice given to someone on their first day of prison, punch the biggest bloke in the yard.
There was one pop-based panel show writers room so notoriously toxic, the survivors talk as though it has been entombed in concrete like Chernobyl. A half-formed idea would get cut short with a Thats shit or Not funny. The writers assistant would get sent out with a complicated sandwich order and a grave warning that the star would lose his shit if she got the order wrong. (Of course, the sandwich shop didnt exist. She was terrified! Lol!)